O2Work marries co-working with urban farming

/ EdgeProp Singapore |
Robert Li: O2Work focuses on creating a workplace that offers members a healthy, green, relaxed environment, rich in oxygen (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
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Co-working and urban farming may sound like an odd combination, but not to Robert Li. The founder and CEO of O2Work believes it is the way for- ward as people prioritise health and wellness at the workplace.
Today, O2Work has four co-working locations in Singapore: its flagship, 13,820 sq ft space at Odeon Towers; another 20,000 sq ft across two floors at Income@Raffles at 16 Collyer Quay; and two smaller co-working spaces in the city fringe — TM@54 located in Aljunied and Singapore Swimming Club at Tanjong Rhu Road.
Members of O2Work, which number more than 600 today, are given bags of vegetables every three to four weeks, or whenever the vegetables cultivated at their co-working spaces are harvested. These are grown using the in- door smart eco-farm systems invented by Singrass, another company founded by Li, where he is also CEO and managing director. It focuses on green technology and urban farming.
Close-up of a Singrass indoor smart eco farm system used to grow vegetables (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
“In the beginning, some of the members were shy, and said things like, ‘Oh, we don’t cook’,” relates Jenny Liu, COO and environ- mental engineer at O2Work. “But when they realise that the vegetables are fresh, pesticide-free and we have a wide variety — from kale to lettuce and kaixin — they even recommended them to their friends.”
Hailing from Inner Mongolia, China, Li ran a steel trading business for more than 20 years. His operations extended across more than 10 locations in China, from Inner Mongolia to Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Wuxi, Liaoning and Xinjiang. Despite its success, Li felt it was time to diversify his business.
He came to Singapore in 2011 to explore new opportunities, and became a permanent resident shortly after. To widen his business contacts in Singapore, Li enrolled in a two- year Executive MBA (EMBA) programme at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School from 2012 to 2014.
O2Work occupies about 20,000 sq ft across two floors at Income @ Raffles (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

From steel trading to sustainability

One of the courses he took as part of his EMBA programme was on entrepreneurship. It gave him an opportunity to meet many of its alumni through networking sessions. At one of these sessions, Li met a top executive at M Grass Ecology and Environment Group, a company whose business focused on ecological restoration and seed technology development.
It sparked Li’s interest in sustainability and he founded M Grass International in Singapore, with the Inner Mongolia-based M Grass Ecology and Environment Group taking a minority stake. Li positioned M Grass International as an “indoor ecological specialist”, and began to study how to build plant communities in an indoor environment.
In 2016, he exited his steel trading business to focus on growing M Grass International. He began to look for a new office space for his start-up. The real estate agents he consulted pointed him to co-working spaces. That was in 2017, when the co-working sector was first taking off. It was an eye-opener for Li.
Singrass indoor smart eco farm systems located around the O2Work coworking space (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
According to Li, he liked the concept of co-working, with its strong sense of community, which encouraged work collaboration and social interaction among its members. He took up a co-working space, but six months after moving in, he developed symptoms that were diagnosed to be allergic rhinitis, and which he has yet to recover from, he relates.
The allergy made him aware of the importance of air quality and the impact of air pollutants on one’s health. After researching on co-working, and consulting several professors from NUS EMBA Business School about the sector, Li concluded that perhaps there was a market for co-working spaces that focused on wellness.

‘Healthy, green, rich in oxygen’

That led to the founding of O2Work, which focuses on creating a workplace that offers members “a healthy, green, relaxed environment, rich in oxygen”, says Li. He opened the first O2Work at Odeon Towers in September 2019.
One of the lounge areas at O2Work at Income @ Raffles, 16 Collyer Quay (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
The O2Work space at Odeon Towers is fit- ted with an indoor air quality monitor on the wall, so that occupiers and members can check the air quality at all times. Besides plants, O2Work also has the smart indoor eco-farm systems to grow up to 25 different types of vegetables. According to COO Liu, the indoor plants and vegetables create a “natural, oxy- gen-rich workspace”.
When O2Work at Odeon Towers first opened, one of Li’s business associates visited the space with his then-pregnant wife, according to Li. She was so convinced that the air was fresh and good for her baby that she convinced not only her husband but five of her friends to take up space there too. The occupancy rate there is 99% today, Li adds.
In May 2020, O2Work at Odeon Tower won the BCA Green Mark Gold Plus certification. To ensure that the co-working space is sustainable, even the wall panels and office furniture at O2Work are made from biodegradable materials that are zero-carbon certified under the global certification organisation Bureau Veritas Certification (BVC), Liu says. “The carpeting, and even the glue under the carpet, are of materials that meet eco-standards,” she adds.
Besides vegetables, green plants placed around the office also enhance the air quality of the space (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
In October 2020, O2Work took up the 13th floor of Income @ Raffles, and in May 2021, it expanded to the 12th floor. The space at Singapore Swimming Club was a collaboration with the club, while the space at Aljunied was a collaboration with Taiwanese tea drink franchise Gongcha. Both are designed as “ecological co-working spaces” and opened in December 2021.
Li sees opportunity for more such collaborations with landlords to create “O2Work satellite offices”, as more people prefer to work closer to their home, he says. It is not just commercial office, retail or mixed-use developments that he is open to considering. In the East Coast area, for instance, the management corporation strata title (MCST) of a private condo is looking to convert one of its two event halls into a co-working space and has approached O2Work, according to Li.

Growing footprint

Both O2Work and Singrass are subsidiaries of M Grass International, Li’s holding company. In Aljunied, Singrass has an office, a research & development laboratory for its technology, and the assembly of its indoor smart eco-farm systems. It is also where classes are conducted to teach people how to grow vegetables at home or in their office using their indoor smart eco-farm system.
A discussion area at O2Work at Income @ Raffles (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
The system is space-efficient, hence it is ideal for both the home and the office, says Li. With multiple shelves vertically stacked like a multi-storey building, the shelves can have up to 100 different vegetable plantings growing at the same time. The system occupies a footprint of just 0.3m, compared to the average potted plant which occupies a floor area of 1.5m, he adds.
Li is positioning Singrass as an indoor farm specialist. He sees Singrass playing a role in furthering Singapore’s target of “30 by 30”, namely to locally produce 30% of the nation’s food sustainably by 2030.
He sees both O2Work and Singrass as “complementary businesses”. His plan is to grow O2Work in Singapore and eventually expand the business to other countries in Asia, such as Thailand, Indonesia and China.

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